Why I chose Substack but then quickly moved to Buttondown
My preferred email newsletter provider is Buttondown but when I set up my newsletter Interesting Things, I chose Substack. However, after two weeks, the warm glow of Substack had subsided and I moved it over to Buttondown. Here’s the story.
Why I chose Substack
I admit it. My main reason for choosing Substack was because it’s free/freemium.
Sending bulk email costs money. Every email newsletter provider that I know of (other than Substack) provides a limited free tier and then charges money beyond that.
I’m a believer that side projects should be cashflow positive since they can sometimes be in suspended animation for long periods of time. I didn’t know how Interesting Things was going to pan out so any way to avoid costs was attractive.
(There’s also some historical background here. I previously had another unrelated email list which was gaining 200+ subscribers a month but I had lost interest in the topic and wasn’t going to post to it anymore. However, the list kept growing and I had no way to monetise it or recover costs. So I had to kill it. I guess there’s a bit of trauma residue here.)
Since Substack was free/freemium, it was liberating not having to care about how large the subscriber list got. Even if it was hundreds of thousands of subscribers, even if most of the subscribers was spam/fake, as long as I didn’t turn it into a paid subscription, I didn’t have to pay anything. As a tool, Substack would always be cashflow positive.
The second reason was discovery.
Substack has a list of technology publications. I figured once I get listed on there, it would help me get new readers. (Little did I know this was a delusion of grandeur.)
Finally, it seemed like Substack is all the rage and everyone and their dog was using it. Should be fine, right? I jumped into it without thinking much.
What happened after I launched
I posted the first two issues of Interesting Things to various places on the Internet. For each posting, I got a burst of 20-80 views and a few subscribers, and then, nothing. After two weeks, I had 18 subscribers.
Hmmm … okay. Now I have some real numbers and learned some things.
All the readers are my readers. I found them on the Internet. Substack didn’t give me any page views. Okay, I wasn’t expecting them to since I was so tiny. But at the current rate, I’m guessing it will be years before I would be prominent enough for Substack discovery to kick in. Sorry, but that’s too long to wait for.
I wasn’t in danger of reaching 1000 subscribers anytime soon. (1000 subscribers is when Buttondown’s paid tier begins. I compare against Buttondown since if it wasn’t for Substack, I’d be using Buttondown.)
I read about a newsletter TheSlice which has a tangentially similar audience. At about 400-600 (?) subscribers, it started monetising and became cashflow positive.
This made me think. If I hit 1000 subscribers, and needed to, I could do similar things to what they did in order to remain cashflow positive. I need not be worried about the uncertainty of recovering costs.
And so, the reasons for choosing Substack got refuted one by one.
Freemium? Not an advantage anymore. I’m now confident I can (lightly) monetise and remain cashflow positive if I were to reach 1000+ subscribers.
Discovery? Not happening.
Mind-share? My sentiment changed.
The warm glow had worn off
It’s funny how quickly different things become noticeable when sentiment changes. I was initially quite happy using Substack. However, after two weeks and reality hit, the warm glow of Substack had worn off and the shortcomings became apparent. I guessed I must have initially glossed over these because I wanted Substack to win.
Once I realised the benefits weren’t there, the downsides came into focus.
Software is very basic
Compared to other email newsletter providers, Substack’s feature set is very basic. There’s not a lot of things that can be changed or tweaked. This could be a good thing for someone who’s new to being a creator. For me, it feels limiting.
Subdomain website is poor
Each substack account gets a subdomain website but the website is unoptimised and very basic.
There are too many clicks needed to get to what you want.
There’s both too much whitespace and inefficient use of space. Maybe they were trying for a minimalistic look. But it doesn’t look minimal to me. It looks unfinished instead.
The website feels like a wireframe that didn’t get coloured in. There’s nothing between the lines. No texture. No vibe. Just … bland.
Sorry, I’ll stop before it becomes a rant. Let me just finish with: If I was paying $1000+ per year for it (which I’m not, but many people are), it’s not pretty enough.
No benefit from the ‘platform’
There was no benefit for me from being on the Substack ‘platform’. There’s no cross-promotion. There’s no free page views. There’s no network effect. (Okay, there is a ‘community’ tab and a comments feature, but the vast majority of readers aren’t there.)
Substack just gives you a very basic email newsletter (which is not very good, features wise) and a very basic website (which is also not very good). Everything else you have to do yourself.
If I already had thousands of subscribers, maybe Substack would promote me and discover new readers. Then it’d be worth being on Substack.
But I don’t.
Going back to Buttondown
There’s no reason for me to be on Substack anymore.
My main problem was discovery. How was I going to get users to find out about Interesting Things? I decided that I should integrate it more closely with my website and cross-promote with my blog.
This is where Substack gets in the way. I feel that Substack designs it’s software to drive traffic to the subdomain website (and transitively, to Substack itself). This is fine if you fit within Substack’s main use case. But if you want to do something just a little different, Substack’s lack of customisability creates unnecessary friction.
In order to better integrate with my website, I needed to move away from Substack.
Hence, after two weeks (and confident that Interesting Things can remain cashflow positive) I went scurrying back to Buttondown.
I like Buttondown because it’s a bit nerdy, it’s natively markdown, it’s cheaper than most, and I can disable user tracking. I can also integrate it closely with my website and cross-promote more effectively.
Those are good reasons for me.
(Since I’m contrasting with Substack, I should also mention for completeness that Buttondown also has a paid subscriptions feature. At 0% commission.)
(The main topic has finished but feel free to read on for more about Substack.)
Appendix: More reflections on Substack
It’s odd. I’ve done a complete 180-degree turn on Substack.
I was pretty hot on Substack at one point. I was gushing about it’s business model of having ‘aligned incentives’ and I wrote about how to use markdown with it.
But now, after a reality check, I’ve gone a bit cold about it.
I wonder what Substack’s management are thinking. From my perspective, they’ve got problems. Their feature set is poor and their subdomain websites are anemic. For a company that’s getting a lot of positive media coverage, their software doesn’t match up. Of course, I’m just one random person on the Net, but I imagine there are lots of others out there like me.
Other service providers offer better features for much less. If Substack wants to charge $1000+ or more per year, it’s offering needs to be at least comparable with the best. But it’s not. Worse, it’s noticeably weaker than most (all?) of its competitors.
I feel Substack’s customer must be:
- Not very tech savvy
- Too busy to notice the price gouging
- Taken in by the positive marketing and media coverage (like as I was)
Substack’s marketing and media coverage is great. But that’s not a very robust moat. Eventually, users are going to see through the illusion and be tempted by competitors which have better features, or cheaper pricing, or both.
Perhaps Substack’s management knows this. Maybe this is why they’ve introduced community features and a web-based rss reader. So readers stay logged in and Substack can pivot into a social network and build a moat. I guess we’ll see in a few years time.